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Chefs’ mad, bad image gets a makeover as kitchen culture changes

Chef Connie DeSouza at her restaurant Char Cut in Calgary on Oct. 27, 2017.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

In his best-selling book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, chef Anthony Bourdain famously described his colleagues as "wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths."

The book's depiction of chefs as mad, bad and slightly dangerous was titillating to people who didn't work in kitchens and unfortunately aspirational to a generation of young chefs who did. It's been nearly 20 years since that book made a star of its author and in today's kitchens that description seems as outdated as a blackened chicken Ceasar on a glass plate.

The concept of sustainable food – a system that contributes to the diversity and well-being of plants, animals, the environment and communities – that informs so many menus these days is also being applied by chefs to their personal lives.

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"I cooked and I drank professionally for 13 years," says Matty Matheson, the chef and host whose television program, Dead Set on Life, references the drug-and-alcohol-induced heart attack he suffered at the age of 29. "It's not sustainable. It's a very, very tiring lifestyle. Now I'm seeing a pendulum swing with this. The days are long gone of chefs like me. Once I put down the drugs and alcohol I realized that taking those things out removed a lot of stress. Every day the restaurant's busy, every day you have to cook, but I wasn't stressed out by it because I wasn't hungover. I can do service way better. I can communicate with my cooks way better. I can expedite and not get frazzled. I can control my cooks, I can be there for them."

Connie de Sousa, chef of Calgary's Charcut Roast House, is known for her love of fat and meat, but she's as serious about staying healthy as she is about bone marrow. "Gone are the days when chefs are getting off their shifts and going out and partying," she says. "These days they are actually getting off work and going home to bed so they can get up early to work out before they come to work. It's funny to see that shift. Trying to incorporate a healthy lifestyle makes you feel better about yourself, but it's also important for endurance in the kitchen because we work such long hours you feel like s–t if you go out and drink every night."

It's not just kicking bad habits that is reshaping the profession. "The whole culture of kitchens is changing a lot," says Chuck Ortiz, editor in chief of Acquired Taste Magazine, who helped launch Food Runners, a group of food industry professionals who meet up for a weekly run. "The old school kitchen brigade where you're yelling and berating your chefs is no longer accepted. Along with that kitchens are changing their mindset about how they're living. They want to have more longevity so they're teaching their chefs about healthier eating."

In 2014, Ocean Wise executive chef Ned Bell created Chefs for Oceans and rode his bike across Canada as a way of tying his advocacy for healthy living directly in to his advocacy for healthy oceans. "I live by the rule that I want to do something that makes me sweat every day," he says. "That doesn't mean a three-hour bike ride or an hour run, but it means I'm either walking the seven kilometres to and from work or I'm going for a cycle or a good hike. I know it played a significant role in my success over the past decade. My workout time is as important a part of my day to me as my work day."

For Rob Gentile, executive chef of the Buca group of restaurants, and his wife Audrey, a yoga instructor, the lines between work and workout are blurring. The couple have just wrapped their annual culinary yoga retreat, L'anima Living in Italy, where they combined visits with local olive oil producers and cooking classes with early morning yoganidrasana poses.

"To be honest," Gentile says, "in my younger days in the kitchen I was pretty crazy with my habits, but I came to realize that I didn't just want to cook I wanted to make a career out of it. I finally figured out if you don't take care of yourself first before you take care of other people, as we do in our industry, you're not going to get anywhere. Then the drugs went away, the smoking went away, and now I can't feel happy without my exercise, whether it's a run or yoga or cross fit or a visit with my personal trainer. If I don't have these things I feel myself not being able to handle what I do. By pushing myself it enables me to handle what I throw on myself at work."

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Video: So hot our belt buckles burn us: Chefs on working in the heat in hot kitchens (Globe and Mail Update)
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